Pirates of the Galapagos

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Criminals, gamblers, wanderers, and… scholars? Rarely does one identify pirates with the latter, yet it was these outlandish explorers who provided the world with the first scientific records of the wild Galapagos Islands, while still wreaking havoc on the high seas and the nearby Ecuadorian coast.

The general consensus across the world appeared to be that the Galapagos were barren and forsaken by God, thus remaining unclaimed by the Spanish for years to come. Still, what is useless to some, can often be priceless to others. For buccaneers, the islands presented a huge tactical advantage, being far enough from the South American mainland to be used as an escape route, yet still close enough to be used as a base from which to raid Spanish galleons — great caravels that carried treasure home from the colonies. Still, the truth remains that however useful the Galapagos could be in a tactical sense, the general lack of resources would not allow any pirate to dock for more than a couple weeks at a time.

Captain Woodes Rogers, a man renowned as the most successful British privateer, licensed by the British Government to ransack Spanish galleons, anchored his ship, The Duke, on the Galapagos. As a matter of fact, he arrived on the islands carrying the money, jewels, provisions and ransom he had received after ransacking the town of Guayaquil. Unfortunately for some, Rogers would eventually retire his seafaring ways, becoming England’s governor of the Baha- J mas and hence turning against his fellow men, eradicating any pirates that he came across. Interestingly, it was Rogers’ same boat that would rescue Alexander Selkirk, a privateer left stranded on a desert island, dressed in goatskins after years of living as a castaway. On its return home, The Duke made its regular stop in the Galapagos to collect tortoises for food. Selkirk would F become the main inspiration for the famous novel Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe.

A similar tale is that of the first inhabitant of the Galapagos, Patrick Watkins, an Irish sailor who lived on what we currently call Floreana Island. He had been marooned there for years, merely surviving on rum and the vegetables he grew to barter with whaling crews. One of the last pirates known to have been on the Galapagos was Captain John Clipperton, who returned to his home in England completely broke after his crew threw out his share of the loot gathered in their expedition into the sea, as retribution for refusing to share the spoils that had taken all their efforts.

A rather exemplary pirate visit to the Galapagos was that of the Bachelor’s ‘Delight, as commanded by Captain John Cook during the Golden Age of Piracy, the late 1600s. His Merry Boys, as his crew was known, succeeded in capturing three Spanish galleons off the coast of Uruguay having the element of surprise on their side. To their great disappointment, the ships carried nothing more than 15,000 bags of flour, quince marmalade, and some timber. To add insult to injury, one of the 100 men they had captured laughed in their faces, claiming they had just missed a ship carrying 800,000 silver pieces of eight, the currency of the time. Low on morale, the crew of the Bachelor’s Delight made its way around the South American coast, eventually reaching the Galapagos and disembarking in search of provisions. While there was meat-a-plenty to go around, the problem was the lack of fresh water. After days of hopping from island to island, luck fell on their side in San Salvador, allowing the Merry Boys to depart, leaving. behind a portion of the cargo they had captured from the Spanish in hidden caves.

The one man to have been interested in the natural discoveries to be made in this remote location was the so called “literary pirate,” William Dampier. His attention was captured by the “spiked lizards who snorted brine”, and the “giant tortoises roaming the volcanic rock.” An innovator, Dampier coined the term “subspecies” upon coming across what he was only able to describe as a “bastard” version of the sea turtles that he had previously seen in the Caribbean. The notes from the three visits he made to the islands represented a wide range of topics, varying from the energetic mating habits of the remarkable birds and reptiles, to the delicious taste of tortoise meat. In fact, while the idea of evolution was far from its conception in Dampier’s time, Charles Darwin brought a copy of his writings along with him on his voyage on the HMS Beagle.

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